CNHI News Service
On the way to feed the lorikeets at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side, I passed Giggles, a laughing Kookaburra perched nonchalantly on a roost in her cage.
A member of the kingfisher family from Australia, Giggles didn’t live up to her name until a guide gave her an aural cue.
Then all hell broke loose.
The Kookaburra opened up with a long series of sounds so awesome, she made me chuckle with delight. Those who’ve seen the old Tarzan movies will recognize her call, which evokes the jungle.
Further on, I entered the lorikeet enclosure, saucer of nectar in hand. Before I could say holy parakeet, three of the colorful birds perched on my outstretched arm and bobbed their beaks into the sauce.
If you ever get to the National Aviary, one of the first things you should do after saying hello to Peanut, the scarlet macaw "greeter bird" with a 31-inch tail near the aviary entrance, is look at the daily schedule.
Each of the aviary’s three free flight areas, woodlands, tropical rainforest and wetlands, has daily feeding shows. You certainly want to catch one of the up-close penguin feedings, as well as the "Parrots of the Caribbean" show in the FliteZone Theater. To get everything in, good planning is essential.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, you might want to visit the Skydeck on the roof to watch free-flying raptors like peregrine falcons, kites and Martial eagles do aerial gymnastics while trying to catch a lure tossed skyward by the staff.
According to Erika Douglas, marketing associate, the National Aviary got its start 60 years ago with a tropical rainforest installation. An expansion in 2010 added a glass-domed atrium as well as Penguin Point, a zoo-like installation with African penguins including Sidney (for Sidney Crosby, of the Pittsburgh Penguins), Patrick (for the hockey division in which the Penguins play), and Stanley (for the cup.)
"In 1993, Congress gave the aviary the national designation it now adds to its title," Douglas said.
The aviary houses more than 600 birds, representing 250 species from all over the globe. Everyone may have their favorite, but those that made the biggest visual impact on me were a pair of sea eagles, one of which perched on a limb close to the wall of its glass enclosure.
"The sea eagles are found in Siberia and Alaska and can weigh 10 to 15 pounds with a wing span approaching nine feet," Douglas said.
I followed guide Janet Robb into the grasslands exhibit and was impressed by her knowledge of all things avian. She pointed out the gorgeous golden finches and explained that the Eastern Paradise Whydah is a parasitic nester that lays eggs in other birds nests and lets the adoptive parents raise them.
I was amused to learn from her that the African gray parrot can mimic not only the human language but also cell phone tones and radio static.
After watching the penguins gorge themselves on fish, I watched wetlands coordinator Dave Miller conduct one of the day’s most entertaining events. Miller passed out grubs to visitors in bleacher seats and asked his audience to hold the worms between their fingers and raise their arms. It wasn’t log before birds swooped down and plucked the tasty (to them) morsels.
We duplicated the exercise with fish, and that time it was the Inca terns that stole our catches.
I ended the day in the expansive enclsosed rainforest, where the feeding began with hard Brazil nuts given to green-winged and hyacinth macaws, while 90 other birds representing 30 species, mostly from Southeast Asia and Africa, flew freely overhead.
One word of caution: Keep a wary eye out for Charley, a common grackle housed in the wetland enclosure. He’s known for his penchant for going through bags and purses of unsuspecting visitors and stealing things like car keys.
Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service, Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Aviary, 700 Arch Street, on Pittsburgh's North Side. (412) 323-7235 or www.Aviary.org.
For a place to stay: Parador Inn, 939 Western Ave., is a unique hostelry with a Caribbean-Victorian flair. Walking distance to the aviary, the Parador takes its name from the Spanish words for "to stop" or "an inn" and occupies the former 1870 Rhode mansion. Owner Ed Menzer claims the main house holds more than 50 stained and leaded glass windows. Along with its Caribbean ambiance, the inn features a full American-style breakfast each morning. (412) 231-4800 or www.theparadorinn.com.
For a place to dine: Willow Restaurant, 634 Camp Horne Road, Pittsburgh, was voted "Best New Restaurant" in 2005 by readers of Pittsburgh Magazine. With attractive decor and sophisticated lighting, Willow changes its menu seasonally. Chef Anthony Pupo, trained at Johnson and Wales, serves exemplary contemporary American cuisine.
Popular dishes include prime sirloin, crab cakes and Branzino Seabass, seared and filled with prosciutto and asiago. I particularly enjoyed my rabbit stew appetizer and duck entree. Desserts made in house, and the wine list is eclectic and well put together. (412) 847-1007 or www.willowpittsburgh.com